Billy Jack (1971)

Now Billy Jack is a rather interesting film, certainly an object of its time in terms of production and its general attitude. Made by Tom Laughlin at the tail end of the hippie era, Billy Jack seems to have been positioned as a countercultural action film, complete with the progressive values of the hippie movement which apparently Mr. Laughlin has to repeatedly shove down our throats at various points in the film. That said it’s not a bad film, in fact I’d say it was a fairly good action film. But I think the problem is that, not only was it a bit too long, but also that it got too bogged down in its own message, even as it runs counter to said message frequently.

The eponymous Billy Jack is a half-breed Navajo Indian, who is also a former Green Beret and a veteran of the then-ongoing Vietnam War who happens to be a master of hapkido martial arts. In the film, he keeps watch of Jean Roberts’ Freedom School, a progressive art school in Southwest America for runaway kids of all races. He defends the Native American kids from the prejudicial bullying of the townspeople, and after an incident in an ice cream parlour in which some Native American kids have flour poured on them, he goes berserk and has the authorities coming after him and the school.

My main problem is that the film is about ten or fifteen minutes too long and suffers from some awkward pacing. Another problem is how ham-fisted the message tends to be. If you’re like me and you’re not a progressive, you probably won’t like the film’s progressive politics, and one thing I noticed is that the hippies in the film always argue from emotion rather than logic, quite like the so-called progressives of today. You could call it strawmanning if you like, but then the film strawmans the “conservative” characters a lot.

In this film’s world, all conservatives are evil, jack-booted bigots and all progressives are righteous hippies just want to sing and dance. Never mind the fact that the film’s message of peace and love is contradicted by the amount of violence committed by the protagonist, which only seems to prove that the only way to truly enforce justice with a gun, and in a film where the main character seems to be for gun control.

As for characters, the acting isn’t too bad, but it’s rather weak. Tom Laughlin is actually not a bad action hero in the film, and better at that than he is a writer or director, but he’s no Clint Eastwood, and he’s desperately trying to be a Clint Eastwood style anti-hero and failing. That said, even if he’s not a great actor, he’s a pretty good fighter, and at certain parts of the film, he’s very good. The rest of the cast is less tolerable though, particularly the hippies.

On the whole, Billy Jack is a dated relic of its time. Not an unwatchable one though, it looks and sounds like a decent film. But it’s main flaw is that it can’t stop getting caught up in its own politicking, and given that it was made by a progressive, this is no surprise. Just as now, they are always concerned with putting politics into everything, and regardless of the message, it doesn’t exactly lead to a good film.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C
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